A simple tag to prevent shoelaces from fraying was deemed to be worth more than gold by the indigenous Cubans who traded with Christopher Columbus.
Bargain: the Spaniards may have traded the tags for pure gold
Scientists from University College London, UK, have been analysing grave goods from indigenous burials on Cuba dating to the Spanish contact.
They were surprised to find little gold - which is abundant in the region.
Instead, the most common artefacts were small brass tubes thought to be cheap lacetags from European clothing.
These tags were used from the 15th Century onwards in Europe, to prevent the ends of laces fraying, and to ease threading in the points for fastening clothes.
The native Taino people of Cuba often threaded the tags into necklaces.
Early chroniclers report that pure gold was considered the least valuable metal among indigenous Cubans. It held significantly less esteem than copper-based alloys.
The smell and iridescence of brass reportedly made it particularly appealing to the Taino.
"If we couple this with the contrasting eagerness of the Spanish for plundering noble metals, then we have a paramount factor explaining the scarcity of gold in the cemetery of El Chorro de Maita - and the relative abundance of brass," said Marcos Martinon-Torres, lead author of the research at UCL.
Columbus's fleet, which reached America in 1492, was the first European presence to arrive in Cuba. Radiocarbon dating shows remains from the burial site of El Chorro de Maita date to a few decades after the conquest.
Columbus's diaries also mention the lacetags.
The analysis is to be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science.